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The feminization of office work since 1870s and onward has gendered the office space in new ways.

How the office estranged and empowered queer women

SHARE YOUR SCIENCE:  Historically, the office was both a heterosexual straitjacket and a space where queer women could support themselves and become independent.

From the 1870s and onwards, businesses experienced an increasing feminization of office work. In 1920, women comprised around 40 percent of office workers in Norway. The office provided important opportunities for unmarried women.

As a business historian I have long been interested in the rise of the modern office and the multifaceted cultural history of office life. This is how the young Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) captured my attention. For ten years she worked at the office of an engineering firm in the Norwegian capital then called Kristiania. Unexpectedly Undset led me to explore office culture though a queer lens.

Queering Sigrid Undset

Subsequently, I wrote a book about Sigrid Undset, who is of course more famous as Norway’s Nobel Prize winning author. In the 1920s, she became celebrated worldwide for her masterly medieval novels such as the Kristin Lavransdatter triology.

In my book I am attempting to “queer” the prominent novelist by posing the heretical question: was the lifelong Swedish pen friend Dea Hedberg Sigrid Undset’s great, unfulfilled love? While working as a typist at the engineering office, the young Sigrid Undset shared her experiences in letters to Dea, whom she developed strong feelings for.

Sigrid Undset (picture) was educated at the Kristiania School of Commerce (Kristiania Handelsgymnasium), where she acquired many of the formal language and writing skills that would define her professional life.

We cannot know for certain whether Undset was gay, but the Dea letters and the literature contain so many “queer” indications that I felt obliged to write the book. The findings offer new perspectives into the life and work of a figure who for years was regarded as a conservative and non-feminist voice in Norwegian public life.

The waiting room of marriage

Sigrid Undset was educated at the Kristiania School of Commerce (Kristiania Handelsgymnasium), where she acquired many of the formal language and writing skills that would define her professional life. Since 1879, the school had accepted women into one-year afternoon classes. Female and male students were taught different things adapted to gendered roles at work.

For young women, office work meant a chance to provide for oneself. Still, the expectation was clear: the office was considered the waiting room of marriage.

A monotonous “almost machine-like” work seemed to fit female nature, according to the school’s management. Mechanical typewriting was thought to be perfect because it did not require any thinking. Furthermore, office ladies were paid less because they were expected to be single and not have to provide for others.

For young women, office work meant a chance to provide for oneself. Still, the expectation was clear: the office was considered the waiting room of marriage. When an office lady married, the next step was to quit her job and be financially supported by her husband.

Eventually, Undset did marry, and then she got divorced. The boring typist work was abandoned, although she was a highly appreciated low-paid employee. She devoted herself to writing, as well as providing for her family and household, in the end as a single mother and a devoted catholic.

Forbidden love

Against all odds, many women remained office workers their entire working lives. For gay women who did not want a husband the office presented an opportunity for independence. This came at a price both socially and mentally. For the businesses they were stable and valuable workers. However, it was often assumed there was something odd with these old spinsters who remained in “the waiting room”.

In the 19th Century it was not unusual for members of the same gender to express intimacy and devotion. In letters, men could acknowledge strong feelings for one another, and on the street, they could be seen walking arm in arm. Young women kissed and hugged publicly without anything more being implied. Undset’s novel Jenny (1911), with a devastating suicidal ending, had illuminated such close friendships.

At the turn of the Century, romantic same-sex friendships were challenged as medical science began to take an interest in sexual deviance. Morality and public decency were on the agenda. Criminology and psychiatry were considered overlapping sciences, and in particular men’s sexual relations with men were considered dangerous and even illegal. This was not entirely new, but it was firmly asserted by the Norwegian penal code of 1902.

Women’s sexuality was less discussed. Did they even have a sex drive?

Compulsory heterosexuality

When women entered the office space, they gendered it in new ways. Relations between men and women played out across their desks, as they sat close together casting glances at each other. Masculinity and femininity were important themes in office culture, and gender was produced and practiced along strong normative expectations. As the feminist poet Adrienne Rich has pointed out, compulsory heterosexuality has been the basis of an idealized relationship between genders.

In a letter to Dea in the summer of 1901, Sigrid Undset shared what it felt like to socialize with a female office colleague and her small group of women friends, who mostly spoke about hunting for a man:

“The conversation, the banter, the jokes. Everything was about ‘him’. This looming ‘him’ one is jokingly assumed to be thinking about when making a mistake sewing or forgetting something, this ‘he’ one is putting up playing cards for, ‘fortune telling books’ and ‘sympathy books’, ‘happiness letters’ one purchases from a blind person on the streets are about ‘him’ – in the periphery of the conversation he appears, yet not a single young lady, unless she is in love with a certain person, dares to be self-aware that she according to nature’s reasonable or unreasonable scheme is created in order to get a man.”

These types of heteronormative conversations defined office culture, as shown in many novels and short stories from the decades around 1900. According to the stereotypes, women dreamed about office romance, while men had their masculinity affirmed through female attention.

The price of the office culture

The connection between business history, gender and sexuality has not always been obvious. Still, it is clear that strong social norms have played out at the office, with consequences for business culture and performances. Over time, the norms have become challenged. New opportunities have emerged, for example when women were given the chance to provide for themselves and live without a man.

The past is a reminder that we need to be aware of the cultural and normative expectations at work today, and how different people experience these. The office worker Undset felt like an outsider, and as a woman her tasks were so dull and repetitive that she quit and became a writer. Through her writing she could challenge and express herself, and she wrote fiction about the alienation of office life, as well as exploring more general themes such as shame, remorse, and troublesome love.

The fact that a gifted woman like Sigrid Undset quit office work was great news for Norwegian cultural life. However, as a valuable asset this was an obvious loss to the company she worked for. Discrimination and conformity are not for good business. That is one important lesson to be learned from office history.

Selected sources:

  • Julie Berebitsky: Sex and the Office. A History og Gender, Power, and Desire. Yale University Press 2012.
  • Christine Myrvang: Tause kilders tale. Var Dea Sigrid Undsets store, uforløste kjærlighet? Universitetsforlaget 2020.

(The article was first published at BI Business Review)

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